Thursday, October 28, 2004

Politics of defeat

By Rajdeep Sardesai

Ageing tigers don't change their stripes. On the last day of the Maharashtra campaign, Bal Thackeray, issued a stern warning to the people of Mumbai.

"B stands for Balasaheb not for Bangladeshi Muslims," thundered the master of incendiary rhetoric. Only days earlier, Dr Manmohan Singh, gentle as ever, had promised to make 'Mumbai into another Shanghai'.

The contrast was striking. One, a dyed-in-the-wool rabble-rouser, the other a genial technocrat; one talking the language of hate and division, the other spinning a futuristic dream. In the end, Mumbaikars, and indeed most of Maharashtra, preferred the dream to the hate speech.

If there is an enduring lesson from the Maharashtra elections, it lies in the limits of exclusion in politics. The Congress system is under strain yet the vacuum could not be exploited by the BJP-Sena combine.

The tiger's cub, the affable but wholly uncharismatic Udhav Thackeray, had claimed that Hindutva was not an issue in these elections. It wasn't. But then you can't shift gears overnight.

It is a fact that when your 38-year-old political history is littered with violent campaigns against Gujaratis, South Indians, trade unionists, Dalits, Muslims and north Indians, then you can't suddenly claim to represent peace and prosperity.

Shiv Sena is still a party of lumpens, which stands for extortion not economic growth.

In 1995, the Shiv Sena could emerge as the dominant party of Maharashtra projecting itself as the saviour of Hindus in the backdrop of the riots and blasts. But in 2004, it isn't religious strife that haunts Maharashtra but increasing unemployment, declining agriculture and crumbling infrastructure.

The BJP's man for all seasons, Pramod Mahajan had recognised this, which is why he abandoned his Raybans and laptop for the heat and dust of Maharashtra's villages.

The problem for Mahajan too is that image makeovers don't happen overnight. You can't be the 'India Shining' posterboy on the treadmill one day, and then suddenly reappear in Kolhapuri chappals and crumpled kurta the very next and talk passionately of farmer suicides.

At least Mahajan tried to grapple with some of the 'real issues'. In a highly localised bijli-sadak-pani election, they seemed more comfortable raking up a jingoistic fervour.

So, there was Uma Bharti waving her tiranga through the drought-hit districts of Vidarbha while others were endorsing the Shiv Sena's 'chappal maro' campaign against Mani Shankar Aiyar.

At a public meeting in Pune, L K Advani lashed out at the fires raging in the northeast and Kashmir. For the troubled Maharashtra farmer, his electricity meter bill matters more than the crisis in Manipur.

This is where the Sharad Pawar-Sonia Gandhi combination had the clear edge. They finally provided the space and leverage to operate as a regional boss, and with the added advantage of being the agriculture minister, a canny Pawar spoke a language the farmer understood: sugarcane packages, better irrigation facilities, loan waivers.

The saffron alliance too offered its share of handouts, but the pragmatic Maharashtra farmer seemed to repose greater faith in the power of the Central government to deliver than in the state leaders.

After all, the Shinde government was viewed as singularly incompetent and corrupt. It had no vision and couldn't balance the budget. But while there was an obvious anti-incumbency, there was also a massive incumbency advantage as a result of the changing power equations at the Centre.

Enter Sonia Gandhi. Sonia was seen as the woman who had sacrificed power for service. It gave an otherwise ageing Congress machine an opportunity to refashion a 'pro-poor' image that has managed a temporary truce with its traditional vote in Maharashtra - Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis.

The substantial queues of women voters in rural Maharashtra is perhaps a sign that while foreign origins may be an issue in a television debate, it doesn't resonate in the far-flung villages of Gadchiroli.

Unfortunately, instead of recognising the appeal of the 'Sonia factor,' the BJP has remained uniformly contemptuous of it. Instead of even attempting to force Sonia into a genuine debate on her policies, the focus has been on targeting the individual, often in the most vitriolic language.

Instead of launching a 'swabhimaan manch' patently directed at Sonia, why not question the economic viability of the numerous promises made in the UPA's common minimum programme?

In a sense, the Maharashtra verdict is a final reality check for those who became a potent political force in the late 1980s by re-inventing Indian nationalism. But fifteen years on, its apparent that the very rhetoric that brought parties like the BJP and the Shiv Sena to power is now subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Leave aside the caste cauldron of UP and Bihar - 50 per cent of which is under the age of 25 - is in a desperate race for upward mobility through economic empowerment.

Ironically, the man who spearheaded the BJP's ascent to power in the 1990s is now being asked to do the resurrection act once again. He either ensures that the BJP focusses on issues of governance or they remain buried in identity politics. If Advani effects a permanent shift the BJP might yet prove to be the legitimate alternative to the Congress-led coalition.

Else, Mahajan can go back to his designer look. And like a tiger in winter, Thackeray can retire and go back to sipping red wine.

Source: Mid Day, October 28, 2004


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